Jan 262015

As the scale of technological change facing organisations becomes apparent, managements are appointing Chief Digital Officers to deal with the adjustment. Is this a good idea or just window dressing?

Last week the Australian Federal government became the latest  administration to announce they will appoint an executive to manage the process.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Digital Transformation Office will be charged to co-ordinate the adoption of online services across agencies and state governments.

“The DTO will comprise a small team of developers, designers, researchers and content specialists working across government to develop and coordinate the delivery of digital services,” the Minister’s announcement stated. “The DTO will operate more like a start-up than a traditional government agency, focussing on end-user needs in developing digital services. ”

Minister Turnbull hopes to emulate the UK Office of the Chief Technology Officer which was launched with the intention of delivering streamlined sign ons, simplified government websites and easier access to online services in Britain; although the experience has not been a great success so far.

What’s notable about the UK experience is the CTO came with high level support within cabinet, which gave the agency a mandate within the public service to drive change.

A job without a budget

That the Australian CTO has no budget – its UK equivalent has over £58 million this year – indicates it will not have a similar mandate and will struggle to be little more than a letterhead.

When Digital Officer do have the support of senior executives and ministers, it’s possible to achieve substantial returns. Vivek Kundra, former Chief Information Officer in the Obama administration described to me in an interview two years ago how his office had created a dashboard to monitor government IT projects.

Kundra learned this lesson from his time as the US Government’s CIO where he built an IT Dashboard that gave projects a green, yellow or red light depending upon their status.

Some of these government projects were ten years late and way over budget, the dashboard gave the Obama administration the information required to identify and cut over $3 billion worth of poorly performing contracts in six months.

This is low hanging fruit that a well resourced group with the support of senior management can drive.

Looking beyond end users

A concern though with these CIO positions is they are only looking at part of the problem with the UK, US and Australian teams all focusing on end-users.

While no-one should discount the need for easy to use online services for customers or government users; digital transformation has far greater effects on private and public sector organisations with all aspects of business being dramatically changed.

In Germany a survey last year by management consultants PwC found eighty percent of manufacturers expected their supply chains would be fully digitised by the end of the decade, almost every industry can expect a similar degree of change.

The risk for CTOs focused on how well websites work is they may find the digital transformation within their organisations turns out to be the greater challenge.

Indeed it may well be the whole concept of Chief Transformation, or Digital, Officers is flawed as digital transformation is pervasive; it affects all aspect of business through HR and procurement to management itself.

Passing the buck

The great risk for organisations appointing a CTO or CDO is that other c-level executives may then believe those individuals are responsible for the effects of digital transformation on their divisions.

While Chief Digital, or Transformation, Officers can have an important role in keeping an organisation’s board or a government aware of the opportunities and challenges in a rapidly changing world, they can’t assume the responsibilities of adapting diverse businesses or government agencies to a digital economy.

Done well with proper resources and management buy in, a good CTO could genuinely transform a business and be a catalyst for change.

Regardless of the responsibilities a CTO or CDO assumes within an organisation, for the role to be effective the position needs the full support of senior management and adequate resources.

If a company or government wants to pay more than lip service to digital transformation then a poorly resourced figurehead is needed to drive change.

Jan 152015

The scale of the carnage Boko Haram has inflicted on remote parts of Nigeria is becoming more apparent every day and satellite imagery shows just how much damage the insurgent group is doing to communities in its territories.

Closer to home, Google’s Project ARA gets another outing, we look at how economies can deal with the jobless future, what a terrible aunt Ayn Rand was and how the IoT is going to sea.

The IoT goes to sea

At the CES show two weeks ago Ericsson launched their new maritime cloud service that promises to connect ocean going ships to the same services available on land

Google unveils more about Project Ara

Project Ara is Google’s attempt to reinvent the smartphone, the project came a little closer to completion with the company showing off some of its progress

Creating the innovation state

What do we do in a world where most people’s jobs have gone? Create an innovation state rather than a welfare state could be an answer suggests one economist.

The extent of Boko Haram’s massacres

Words fail to describe the horrors being visited on the people of Nigeria.

Ayn Rand was a terrible Aunty

What happened when one of Ayn Rand’s nieces asked aunty for a $25 loan?

Jan 142015
apple smartphone tablet pc

Links today have a bit of a social media theme with Twitter co-founder Ev Williams explaining his view that Instagram’s numbers don’t really matter to his business while researcher Danah Boyd explains the complexities of teenagers’ social media use.

Apple’s patents and why the tech industry is firing, not hiring, round out today’s stories.

Feel the width, not the quality

Twitter co-founder Ev Williams attracted attention last month with his comment that he couldn’t care about Instagram’s user numbers, in A Mile Wide, An Inch Deep he explains exactly what he meant at the time and why online companies need to focus more on content and value.

Apple gets patent, GoPro shares drop

One of the frustrations with following the modern tech industry is how patents are used to stifle innovation. How an Apple patent for something that seems obvious caused camera vendor GoPro’s shares to fall is a good example.

Why is the tech industry shedding jobs?

Despite the tech industry’s growth, the industry’s giants are shedding jobs. This Bloomberg article describes some of the struggles facing the tech industry’s old dinosaurs.

An old fogey’s view of teenagers’ social media use

Researcher Danah Boyd provides a rebuttal of the story about young peoples’ use of social media. “Teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background,” she says. Sometimes it’s necessary to state the obvious.

Dec 292014
geeky glasses for IT workers and social media experts

It’s becoming harder to be an expert warns Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham.

What’s worse, Graham suggests being locked in the way things currently are is the biggest risk for today’s experts as change accelerates across society.

This climate of change makes it tough for investors like Graham to identify the next big things for them to stake money on; when the experts are often wrong it’s hard to figure out whose right in picking what business or technology will be successful in a few years time.

Graham suggests betting on people, particularly the “earnest, energetic, and independent-minded” is a better way of finding the next wave of successful businesses and his views are a useful reminder that   ultimately its people who find ways to implement and profit from technology.

The paradox with the changes we’re facing is that the technology is the easy part, it’s the human and social consequences which will surprise us.

Which is why Paul Graham is right about our having to think outside the boundaries of our own expertise.

Dec 282014

After twenty years the Yahoo! Directory closed down five days early reports Search Engine Land.

The rise and and fall of Yahoo!’s core product illustrates both the volatility of the web and how the underlying dynamics of the internet has changed; at the time Yahoo! Directory was launched, we were struggling the task of keeping track of all the information being posted online.

Even in those early days it was clear that task was becoming unmanageable and this was the problem Google set out to solve and its success destroyed the directory business along with a whole range of other industries.

Yahoo! Directories’ demise needs to be noted by today’s web and social media giants; just as these technologies are disrupting old industries, new businesses aren’t immune to those changes.


Dec 242014

Yesterday’s blog post considered how we might design a driverless car without the legacies of today’s vehicles.

In the meantime we have to deal with our own human failings on the road and already tomorrow’s technologies are helping us drive better today.

The day when driverless cars are the norm on our roads may be a generation, possibly further, away but many of the technologies that make autonomous vehicles possible are available today and are appearing in many new models.

Last year the MIT Technology Review looked at BMW’s driverless car project and made the point that the technologies are still some years away from being adopted, the features being incorporated in today’s vehicles are already reducing accidents.

Thanks to autonomous driving, the road ahead seems likely to have fewer traffic accidents and less congestion and pollution. Data published last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a U.S. nonprofit funded by the auto industry, suggests that partly autonomous features are already helping to reduce crashes. Its figures, collected from U.S. auto insurers, show that cars with forward collision warning systems, which either warn the driver about an impending crash or apply the brakes automatically, are involved in far fewer crashes than cars without them.

This fits in with the vision described last year by Transport For New South Wales engineer John Wall who described how Australian roads can be made safer through the use of smarter cars, roadside sensors and machine to machine technology.

As the MIT story illustrated, many of the technologies Wall discussed are being incorporated into modern cars with most of the features needed for largely autonomous driving being common by 2020.

Comparing smart car technologies

Like many of the things we take for granted in low end cars today most of the advanced features will be appearing in top of the line vehicles initially, we can also expect the trucking and logistic industries to be early adopters where there’s quantifiable workplace safety improvements or efficiency gains. Eventually many of these features will be standard in even the cheapest car.

One thing is certain, while the driverless car is some way off we’re going to see the roads become safer as new technologies are incorporated into cars.

Dec 222014
Stagecoaches were dominant in the 19th Century but failed when technology changed

We aren’t prepared for the changes technology is bringing our society warns Vivek Wadhwa in Our future of abundance—and joblessness.

Vivek makes the important point that in the near future many of the jobs we take for granted today will be replaced by machines, this is similar to the warning from Andrew McAfee that a wave of innovation is going to overrun businesses over the next two years.

That innovation is going to cause massive disruption; as Vivek notes we’re going to see the loss of jobs in occupations as diverse as taxi drivers, farmers and – probably the most underestimated of all affected occupations – managers.

Of course this is not first time we’ve seen massive changes to our economy and over the last century farming has gone from one of the most labour intensive industries to one of the most automated.

The automation that changed farming though created millions of new jobs; today’s retail and food industries employ far more people than agriculture did a century ago and most of those jobs were made possible by the same technologies that reduces the need for farm workers.

Vivek acknowledges this in quoting Ray Kurzweil in that jobs are lost only if we look narrowly at  the industries and communities affected.

Automation always eliminates more jobs than it creates if you only look at the circumstances narrowly surrounding the automation.  That’s what the Luddites saw in the early nineteenth century in the textile industry in England.  The new jobs came from increased prosperity and new industries that were not seen.

What we have to acknowledge though is the transition to a new economy won’t be painless and that millions of people will be dislocated and some communities will cease to exist – just as the bulk of the developed world’s populations moved from rural villages to industrial cities during the Twentieth Century.

The truth is we don’t know how that process is going to evolve; then again, neither did our forebears a hundred years ago.

A hundred years ago we were at the beginning of an age of abundant energy and that changed society beyond recognition in the course of the century, at the end of this century of abundance our society will be very different again.